Twenty years ago today the comedy world lost an stand-up legend, Bill Hicks.
William Melvin Hicks was more than a stand-up comedian; some called him a truthsayer, a satirist, a social critic, and sometimes musician. He cut through noise of an 80s comedy boom drowning in sameness, brick walls, and yuk yuk jokes. He didn’t make his bones selling premises about airplane travel or marriage; rather he tackled religion, politics, and philosophy. He was controversial and dark. He criticized mediocrity, consumerism, the blasé nature of the media, and pop culture. He hated the ruling class that kept people “stupid and apathetic.” He had an existential approach toward life, often challenging the “accepted truth” about things such as drug use and social norms. If comedy were in need of an image for the counter culture, then Bill Hicks would be it. Mediocrity irked him, and he’d put it on other creative types to not settle either. He was confrontational on stage; dispatching hecklers while referring to Hitler, which would lead into tirades about mass genocide.
What many forget is just how young Hicks was when he began performing stand-up. He was still in high school, and at the age of 16 began performing in Houston’s Comedy Workshop in the early 1980s. The 2010 documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, noted that Hicks would often sneak into the clubs he was performing at because he was not of legal age. After high school and a brief run to Los Angeles, Hicks returned to Texas and really honed his act. He toured, a lot. Gaining tremendous critical success, but rarely a commercial one. Hicks got a big break in 1987 when he appeared on Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedian Specials. He followed that with an HBO One Night Stand, specials in London, and albums. He was gaining a large following in the UK. The bands Tool and Radiohead were catching onto his act. He even made a few Lollapalooza appearances opening for Tool. In 1993, Rolling Stone declared him the “Hot Stand-up Comic.”
Then Bill Hicks was gone…
Just as what was sure to be a legendary career in comedy was taking off, cancer ended it. In June 1993, Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told it spread to his liver. He still toured, received chemo, was working on a TV pilot, and recorded a new album. Hicks didn’t let many people know about his cancer, only close friends and family knew. He last performed in NYC on stage at Caroline’s on January 6, 1994. After that, he moved back home with his parents in Little Rock, Arkansas, and left this plane of existence on February 26, 1994 at the age of 32.
In the years since, stand-up comedy has been a little quieter, without as much edge. Posthumous albums were released displaying Hicks’ body of work, his UK following developed into a cult of people who dove into his ideology. Up and coming comedians have taken to his style, but never seeming to eclipse it. We’re currently in a tremendously great time of countless and incredible comedians doing great work. However, few seem to be as dangerous as Hicks when commenting on society.
As many people often do, they wonder what persons of the past would think about events of the future. What would a 52-year-old Bill Hicks think about a generation of reality TV? Pop stars? The Kardashians? Hipsters? What would he think about social issues like gay marriage, the drug trade, or drone strikes? It’s wondering these that bum me out more than anything else. For he’d have a lot to say that would make more sense than any authority figure would care to admit. But thanks to places on the internet like YouTube, new fans are able to discover his material, see his inflections, and hear his snarl when he reaches genuine anger.
It’s been 20 years and Bill Hicks still holds the attention of comedy fans. He’s as fascinating as ever, almost as if he was on loan to this earth for just a short time and then had to move on where to he was next needed. He’s timeless, relevant to our world in 2014 just as much as he was in 1994. Twenty years out and it’s still just a ride.